Fallin’s signature will shift power from board to Barresi
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Published: 11-Apr-2011

Governor Mary Fallin’s signature Friday evening (April 8) on House Bill 2130 shifts power in Oklahoma public education from the unelected state Board of Education to elected Superintendents of Public Instruction. 

 Signing the bill is the latest development in a significant reordering of management and policy development in tax-supported schools.

 Less dramatic than some steps was Fallin’s appointment, late last month, of her first new member of the statewide Board. She named Phil Lakin to replace Tim Gilpin. Her appointment will require confirmation in the state Senate. 

 The new law will redefine duties of the state Board of Education and the superintendant of public instruction. The action comes less than three months after the first meeting of Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi with members of the current state Board of Education. 

 Barresi is the second woman to serve as state superintendent. She is the first Republican ever elected to the post, and the first new person in the job in 20 years. 

 Led by Gilpin, the incumbent board denied Barresi some of her executive staff selections, assailing her and members of her staff throughout one of the most contentious public meetings of a statewide body in modern history. 

 The incident led to massive criticism of the incumbent board from ranking Republicans, including Governor Fallin, Speaker of the House Kris Steele of Shawnee, Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman of Sapulpa and Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Hickman of Dacoma.

 State Rep. Lisa Billy of Lindsay pointed to the comments of one board member who said a member of Barresi’s staff would be “worthless” to the agency in the final weeks of her pregnancy.
 Republicans noted that Barresi’s post is the only statewide elective job subject to decisions of an non-elected board, and that every member of the board had been appointed by former Governor Brad Henry, a Democrat. 

 As the controversy raged in late January and early February, Democrats in the Legislature emphasized what they characterized as “unlawful” actions by Barresi, who used private resources to compensate some members of her staff while awaiting resolution of the dispute. State Rep. Mike Brown of Tahlequah said the controversial exchanges did not justify the response to limit powers of the board. State Sen. Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City was critical of some comments made at the board meeting, but argued the incivility did not justify the transformation of public school governance. And, he pressed for clarity on the private pay for public work issue.
 The State Chamber of Oklahoma supported proposals to change the board’s powers, contending that shift was an important part of essential steps to reform and rationalize public education in the Sooner State.  

 Senator Rice pointed out, in recent floor debates on the GOP’s education reforms, that the majority party had made its proposals steadily less dramatic, but that he still did not support the changes in education governance.

 H.B. 2139, by Speaker Steele and Senate Pro Tem Bingman, is designed, according to a Republican press release, to streamline “the operations of the state Department of Education by placing control of the department with the superintendent rather than the state Board of Education.

 “The bill also clarifies the superintendent’s authority to give advice and make recommendations to the state Board of Education on all matters pertaining to the policies and administration of the public school system.  It also directs the state board to submit a budget, as prepared by the state superintendent, to the governor’s office.”

 In her signing statement, sent to CapitolBeatOK, the chief executive said, “In Oklahoma, the superintendent of public instruction is elected based upon the ideas and agenda they present to voters.  And the superintendent – not the unelected Board of Education – should have the power to run the Education Department. This legislation will help to make the department more accountable and responsive to the will of the people.”

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